The Sensual Art of Drawing

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On any given day, Los Angeles teems with well-toned, fresh-faced hopefuls waiting for their big break. You can find them on the beach or if you get lucky, bump into one of them at Schwab's Drugstore on Sunset Blvd. At least that's where, according to legend, a Hollywood agent discovered the divine Lana Turner in the 1930's. If that same agent lived in Paris in the 1880s, I wonder what he would think about the beautiful barmaid at the Folies-Bergère, the one that Édouard Manet immortalized in his famous painting. Though the girls there were known for their easy virtues, this melancholic beauty seems lost in her own thoughts and not the least bit interested in responding to us viewers or the customer standing in front of her.

This enchanting painting summarizing the spirit of 'gay Paris' can be seen through the summer at the Getty Center, where it's on loan from the Courtauld Institute in London. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, one of the most enigmatic paintings of the era, simply refuses easy interpretation. One can see it as a sort of farewell to all earthly pleasures, painted by Manet at the end of his life. Several months later, at the age of 51, he died of complications caused by syphilis. It's nothing short of a miracle that the Getty was able to persuade the Courtauld Institute to part – even for a short time – with this priceless canvas.

And if that is not enough to make you drive up to the Brentwood campus, here is another offer you can't refuse. Next to the Manet painting, there is an exhibition of 19th century European drawings from the Getty collection. Among the few dozen drawings there are some showstoppers, one of them a pastel sketch by Edgar Degas presenting a black circus performer, Miss Lala, dangling in the air, literally, by the skin of her teeth. Another gem is the deeply personal portrait of Madame Seurat, a delicate drawing of unsurpassed intimacy and brilliant draftsmanship by her son Georges. So, the melancholy beauty of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, strangely alone in the otherwise empty gallery, has company after all. In the adjacent galleries, there are drawings by Gericault and Delacroix, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne and Gauguin, to name just a few. Some of these drawings are recent acquisitions that set the Getty back millions of dollars.

Now maybe it's time to go back to earth and return to reality. Why not check out the exhibition of drawings by LA artists at Bergamot Station at Hunsaker/Schlesinger gallery? After decades of being neglected, figurative art is back in fashion, and the draftsmanship of some of these artists is quite impressive. Salomon Huerta draws the pale face of a young woman lying in bed, her hair a dense, dark mass of pencil marks. Kim Dingle, in one of her trademark images of little girls behaving badly, presents these little angels either playing with or torturing the lambs – it's difficult to tell exactly what's going on.

Adonna Khare, a young artist whose work I hadn't seen before, makes meticulous drawings of animals unnervingly possessed of almost human attitudes. Some artists have to learn hard the art of drawing, while lucky others – like Khare – are seemingly born with this skill. A monumental, eight-foot tall pencil drawing on paper by the artist is an impressive showcase of her formidable skill, in service of telling a benevolent version of Hieronymus Bosch's macabre The Garden of Earthly Delights. For new collectors, this exhibition is a good place to look and decide whether they want to build a smart, ambitious collection focused on the art of drawing, the most intimate form of art. Besides, the price is still right.

Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère
On view at the Getty through September 9

Defining Modernity: European Drawings, 1800–1900
On view at the Getty through September 9

Luck of the Draw
On view at Hunsaker/Schlesinger Fine Art through July 28

Banner image: Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (detail), 1882